Remember our fallen U.S. veterans. Honor those who serve. Teach your children the value of freedom. Those are the ideals that drive the mission of Wreaths Across America, an organization whose annual holiday season journey will pass through New Jersey next month, including a stop here in Monmouth County, at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel, on Wednesday, December 14.
Each December on National Wreaths Across America Day, the mission to Remember, Honor and Teach is carried out by coordinated wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as over 1,100 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states, at sea, and abroad. This year, National Wreaths Across America Day will be recognized on Saturday, December 17.
“A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken. When we lay wreaths on veterans’ graves, we say their names,” explained Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America. “We encourage every volunteer who places a wreath on a veteran’s grave to say that veteran’s name aloud and take a moment to thank them for their service to our country. It’s a small act that goes a long way toward keeping the memory of our veterans alive. We are not here to ‘decorate graves.’ We’re here to remember not their deaths, but their lives.”
One man’s annual tribute to our veterans inspired a legion of volunteers and gave rise to the Wreaths Across America of today. Morrill Worcester, Karen’s husband and owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, was a 12-year-old paper boy when he won a trip to Washington, D.C. His first trip to our nation’s capital was one he would never forget, and Arlington National Cemetery made an especially indelible impression on him. This experience followed him throughout his life and successful career, reminding him that his good fortune was due, in large part, to the values of this nation and the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
In 1992, Worcester Wreath found themselves with a surplus of wreaths near the end of the holiday season. Remembering his boyhood experience at Arlington, Mr. Worcester realized he had an opportunity to honor our country’s veterans. With the aid of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, arrangements were made for the wreaths to be placed at Arlington in one of the older sections of the cemetery that had been receiving fewer visitors with each passing year. As plans were underway, a number of other individuals and organizations stepped up to help. The owner of a local trucking company generously provided transportation all the way to Virginia. Volunteers from the local American Legion and VFW Posts gathered with community members to decorate each wreath with traditional red, hand-tied bows. Members of the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C. helped organize the wreath-laying, including a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The annual tribute went on quietly for several years until 2005, when an iconic photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with wreaths and covered in snow, circulated around the internet and went viral. Suddenly, the project received national attention. Thousands of requests poured in from all over the country from people wanting to help with Arlington, to emulate the Arlington project at their national and state cemeteries, or to simply share their stories and thank Morrill Worcester for honoring our nation’s heroes. Unable to donate thousands of wreaths to each state, Mr. Worcester began sending seven wreaths to every state, one for each branch of the military, and for POW/MIAs. In 2006, with the help of the Civil Air Patrol and other civic organizations, simultaneous wreath-laying ceremonies were held at over 150 locations around the country. The Patriot Guard Riders volunteered as escort for the wreaths going to Arlington. This began the annual “Veterans Honor Parade” that travels the east coast in early December.
The annual trip to Arlington and the groups of volunteers eager to participate in Mr. Worcester’s simple wreath-laying event grew each year until it became clear the desire to remember and honor our country’s fallen heroes was bigger than Arlington, and bigger than this one company. In 2007, the Worcester family, along with veterans and other groups and individuals who had helped with their annual veterans wreath ceremony in Arlington, formed Wreaths Across America, a non-profit 501-(c)(3) organization, to continue and expand this effort, and support other groups around the country who wanted to do the same. In 2008, more than 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico, and 24 overseas cemeteries. Over 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans’ graves and more than 60,000 volunteers participated. That year, December 13, 2008 was unanimously voted by the U.S. Congress as “Wreaths Across America Day.” In 2014, Wreaths Across America and its national network of volunteers laid over 700,000 memorial wreaths at 1,000 locations in the United States and beyond, including ceremonies at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, as well as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the sites of the September 11 tragedies. This was accomplished with help from 2,047 fundraising groups, corporate contributions, donations from trucking and shipping firms, and thousands of helping hands. The organization’s goal of covering Arlington National Cemetery was met in 2014 with the placement of 226,525 wreaths.
The wreath-laying is still held annually, on the second or third Saturday of December. The annual pilgrimage from Harrington, Maine to Arlington National Cemetery has become known as the world’s largest veterans’ parade, stopping at schools, monuments, veterans’ homes, and communities all along the way to remind people how important it is to remember, honor, and teach. This year, the convoy of trucks bearing their loads of wreaths will make two stops in New Jersey. As in past years, one will be at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, at the Liberation Monument, at 9:00 a.m. and the second will be at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial at 12:30 to 1:00 P.M. The wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington will be held on December 17, as will all ceremonies in the United States.
How can you help? Whether you are a single individual, a corporation, a volunteer group, a trucker, or a trucking company, there are plenty of ways you can get involved to help honor and remember our nation’s fallen servicemen and women. Sponsor a wreath, volunteer at a wreath-laying ceremony, donate to a fundraising group near you, start a local fundraising group, add a new cemetery location, offer corporate support, offer trucking support, or simply share the Wreaths Across America mission and experience. For details, visit www.WreathsAcrossAmerica.org or see the Facebook page at Wreaths Across America – Official Page. To find a participating location near you, go to the search page at https://wreaths.fastport.com/ and select a location from the map or search by zip code, location name, or city. By clicking “view,” you will go to the location page for that cemetery. From the location page, you can donate for wreaths, sign up to volunteer, or see general information about the location and ceremony.